Standing in the lobby of the state-of-the-art LEED-certified Sidwell Friends Upper School, staring at a giant tile mosaic of the word stewardship, Curtis Apple was ready for some bullshit. In his time as a parent, he had never been called in to speak with a teacher, and while he was a man who, in casual conversation at gallery openings or block parties, espoused great faith in the private Quaker education his two girls were receiving, something ancient in the back of his skull had been tapping like a crow peck since he’d parked his Volt and set the soles of his Nike Air Max 1s on campus. Some inherited self-defense mechanism had kicked in, the same one that made his dad, back when they were living in Salt Lake, clench one of his fists in his pocket whenever he would walk into the Mormon temple with his toolkit, asking some no-blink woman for directions to the boiler room. Now some pious folks were about to be too kind, how they often were with people who, in the end, would find themselves craning their necks from the back row of heaven’s balcony seats. Even if he was probably in their tax bracket; even if he’d cut his teeth in nonprofit work; even if his kids took the same moment of silence every morning that theirs did; especially because his wife was a white Danish woman. He felt like Sammy Davis Jr. in a Rat Pack that was really into the holistic and prolonged rituals of noncontact conflict resolution.
He swung around. Coming down the stairs, darker than a plumb tumbling down a well, was not the white creative-writing professor he thought he’d been emailing.
“Professor Deforest, I presume?” The father made his way up the stairs to the professor, who continued to descend. The two men met on the same step, level with each other, and shook hands.
“We use our first names here, so you can call me Hugh. Your girls do.”
The handshake loosened.
“Of course. You can call me Curtis, then. My girls don’t, though. Only you.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Curtis. My office is just up this way if you want to follow me.”
Hugh had an office to himself on the second floor, with a large window meant to let in natural light. Still, it was surprisingly dark when Curtis walked in, due to the latticed plant cover engulfing almost the entire window. It had a comfortable muffling effect on the room, flittery cones of light projecting through leaves onto the dusky walls like inverted shadows. Hugh turned the knob on the stem of a lamp in the corner and made his way behind his desk. He pointed with his whole palm to a chair for Curtis to use and then chucked a thumb over his shoulder at the window behind him.
“It’s ivy. School brought it in so we’d look more prestigious. I was on paternity leave last year when they planted it, and by the time I came back it had eaten half the wall. I thought I liked it at first, but it’s starting to get a little depressing in here. I keep falling asleep at my desk, it’s so dark. I just haven’t gotten around to making a formal complaint about it.”
Curtis chuckled and nodded. He was still adjusting to this man. He had a stack of papers on his desk, at the top of which was a stained page titled “The Negro-Art Hokum.” On the wall was a Gilbert Arenas jersey, a neighbor to a poster stating the core tenet of Quakerism: “There is that of God in everyone.” Curtis and his wife had chosen to send their girls here when they’d moved over from Copenhagen six years prior because they thought it would best mirror the public education they’d received in Denmark. He wasn’t too hot on the idea of his girls being pumped full of a ubiquitous God that he couldn’t at all envision, but at least they had a teacher who cared enough to call him in and talk with him face-to-face.
“I guess we should hop right into it. I’m concerned about something Dorte and Ulla wrote in my class. I reached out to just you because, well, frankly it’s easier for me. I think you’ll understand what I mean after you read it.”
He took the top paper off the stack on his desk and handed it over.
“I’ll leave you alone with this for a little while.”
After the door closed and he was alone, Curtis walked over to the lamp. His eyesight was going. He leaned against the wall and began to read.
we feel like whenever we’re asked to do something for this class y’all want us to write pretend, like we aren’t actually the ones typing these words right now. like, we’re supposed to write all simple or refined or boring, cuz that’s GOOD WRITING. but like it’s no mystery machine—meddling kids—let’s split up gang—scooby doo ass mystery who is writing this. YOU assigned this project to US, so we’re going to write this like us write and you’re going to read like you read. also bruuh, this is high school creative writing…like, that’s it. i’m sorry you’re so tight about an, oxford, ass, comma, but at least we’re trying something. i mean look at your class, HUGH!!!! these cheesy hipster bitches are either scribling tumblr word vomit or just writing suicide notes and saying it’s a prose poem. you said that since we’re twins we could work together on our personal life changing event narrative so we’re going to speak from our positionalities as both biracial, female identifying people and members of the rap collective du.oz about how we have experienced racism growing up in Takoma. we know you’re getting tired of all that moldywhitei’msad cheese, even though you like to talk like you’re one of them, so here is something new, Hugh. this right here tho is the Kraft™ single, that American origiknowl. this is brain blast. this is real. this is black. this only has to be 500 words right? betttt.
here’s the deal. we rap. we been rapping for a few years but we just threw some tracks up on soundcloud last year that got a lot of heat in school. so now we’ve been doing open mics and house shows and we’re kind of blowing up. you should ask your other classes if they’ve heard of du.oz. d and u for our names (that’s the obvi part) and then .oz cuz that’s what we are, daughters (dot-oz). genius right? and of course duo cuz that’s what we also are, twins. there’s still not a whole lot of women in the rap scene, but we’re on that steady grind. anywhoooooooo.
so like march, like a month ago, we were playing this show in our friend’s backyard, over on Tulip. there were mad heads, like from all over the city, and they were showing us love. we debuted this new song talking about where we come from and being black and being from DC and whatnot. it was this group track that we did with our man dreamboy Jones. he was in your class last year. his real name Alfred. he and Dorte have been talking, like official, for a few months now. that’s her boo. résumé—we’re onstage and everyone is vibing with us, getting wild, singing the words with us. ok and so Dorte has this line like: i stay reppin the dmv/this fine boy here put his d in my v/i’m not racist i don’t see color/he might be white but he still my nigga (that’s a slant rhyme. thanks for teaching us that one, Hugh). so yea, like dreamboy Jones is white. and when we said that line about him being her nigga most of the crowd started laughing and cheering. cuz like it was a joke and he didn’t even say it. duh, he’s white.
anyway, we come off stage and our guy Monty is rolling this spliff for us. we’re about to walk it down to Sligo Creek when this group of people, some of whom we had never seen before, confront us, talking about how they didn’t appreciate the last song and asking us where we was from or whatever. so we said Takoma. and this one sis was like “ok, but like (teeth suckkk/lip smackkk) where you go to school?” and we were like Sidwell Friends. and they started laughing, and like it was a mad hostile laugh. mind you, we didn’t know these people and they were being aggressive and we were uncomfortable. so this one guy, a real dark nigga whom we had never had the pleasure of meeting, says “yall lightskins need to stop fronting.” and we were like, woah come again. this mans keeps going, clapping his hand and just being mad brazy, “yall barely even from here. you go to some fancy white school and get to stand out, walking around thinking you some beige bama, talking about your struggle and shit. don’t rep northeast. don’t rep my city. don’t use your redbone privilege to speak for me. you’re not black like that.” we were shook. like a) we didn’t know whose mans this was and b) he was coming at us with this crazy racist, colorism shit, like we weren’t black enough for him. and so we clapped back “you don’t know where we’re from. yes we’re mixed and not as dark as you, but that doesn’t make us less black than you. our dad grew up in the hood, he was the first man in his family to go to college. don’t act like we don’t experience black things.” They must not have liked that cuz the whole group of them started screaming shit:
“Someone needs to grab these girls.”
“The fuck are those?”
“oh, wow, sweetie….nononono.” “I’m dead.”
“this is why I don’t FUCK with MOCO niggas.”
“Yo, this is Obama’s fault.”
“Tell your lil ken doll that he can keep your little lite-bright self.” “Kill mo.”
“I GUESS WE’RE A MONOLITH!! THE LIGHTSKINS HAVE PRONOUNCED IT!!!”
it was mad hateful. and most of what they were accusing us of we had nothing to do with. it was all projections. none of our friends were stepping up, not even our black ones. finally dreamboy stepped in and was just like “hey, can we all just calm down.” And that’s when the mans from earlier was like “oh shit, now her ‘nigga’ got something to say.” And dreamboy was like “yea, I do have something to say. yall are being really hateful right now.”
—“hateful? you the one out here colonizing my culture. letting this confused girl call you nigga.”
—“first off, I never said it. second, you aren’t the gatekeepers of DC.”
—“oh is that so, Macklemore. you feeling pretty big right now, I bet. now that they’re calling you a nigga you got some real wild energy. I was talking about how you stole hip hop, but please, tell me more about my city…nigga.”
—“can you stop saying that shit? it’s just a word. like let it go.”
—“just a…just a word. ok fine then you say it.”
—“oh no? why not? is it cuz we’re in public and you can’t be mad spicy when everybody is listening. cuz I know you say that shit when you alone, jerking it to iggy azaleas instagram and bumping post malone. so tune us out. yall are already so good at doing that. just pretend we ain’t here and say it.”
—“i knew you w—”
they jumped him real quick. grabbed his collar, threw him against the fence and started punching him in the face. some of dreamboy’s crew jumped in to protect him, and it turned into a brawl. they tore up the bushes. bunch of them got caught up in a rose thicket. the thorns cut them up pretty bad. a couple got caught in dreamboy’s lip and split it down the middle. he’s fine now. his eye healed and they reset his nose. the doctor took the stitches out of his lip last week. you can barely tell he got in a fight. all the black boys who jumped him got pretty tore up by the rose bush tho. they were trickling blood all over like sweat. we saw one of the boys the other day, walking to the metro. his cuts had turned into these little red bumps, like they were infected. and then he saw us and just stared, real mean. wouldn’t stop. he was scratching his arm too, like we made him itchy or something. we didn’t feel safe.
time to be really real: it’s hard being light skinned. like it’s unfair. we are black. we feel black every day. but also we’ve got white in us, so we can empathize with white people. and we see the hate black people give white people, and like we get it. some of it. but there are good white people. like dreamboy Jones. he respects the culture. like he’s into rap and he’s the one who showed us Wild ‘N Out. and he didn’t deserve to get treated like that. i mean they made him say the word. and then to have them question our blackness like that and say we’re not where we’re from. we’ll never fit in with anyone. but we know we’re black. and maybe it’s because we’re mixed that we are even more aware of this blackness. like we’re the new and improved era. that new normal. eventually everyone is just gonna mix with everyone. and then anyone can say nigga.
When Hugh came back in, he had one hand in his pocket and the other clutching a yellow Delicious apple. Curtis was back in his chair, wishing he had a window he could pretend to stare out of. Hugh sat down, took a bite, chewed as he wiped the juice from his lip. He raised his eyebrows at Curtis and swallowed.
“So, listen. I’m gonna be real with you, and I hope you can see where I’m coming from. I’m worried and I’m a little hurt. What I’m worried about is that I got two seventeen-year-old black girls in my class who in a year are about to graduate and go out into the world hating anybody who looks darker than them. And listen, I see black kids every year at this school who are grappling with a lot of self-hate and shame. But your girls are in a special position, you know?”
Curtis sucked his upper lip and shook his head. “No, I know. I know. I feel you.”
“I mean, your girls stand out.” Hugh peeled the sticker, tossed it onto the desk. “They’re smart. They’re well liked. They have a lot to say and the talent to say it well. But I think they are crying out right now. They want to know about their blackness. They want to know what it means. Right now, they are piecing it together on their own and I think they are trying to make themselves feel special or different in order to protect themselves—from being fully black, I mean, even though that’s exactly what they want to be. That’s the monolith conundrum: There is no one true blackness, but it is a color. Not just some absence of visible white. And the darker you are, the closer you are to it. I’m not saying I believe that, but that’s where the mind goes. I mean—and if I’m overstepping, let me know—but have you ever considered your kids to be as black as you?”
Curtis thought about how straight their hair was when they were babies; how, when it finally curled, women in Hellerup supermarkets would run their hands through it without asking; how they would switch fluidly between English and Danish when they were talking to their mother and how he would have to concentrate hard to keep up with the conversation; how his father, walking off the plane to meet his grandchildren for the first time, whispered in his ear, “I don’t know what’s up with this country, but if these rutabaga faces don’t stop smiling at me I’m gonna get myself deported”; how they both laughed at that; how he still had never told his wife that story.
“No, I guess not. They grew up different than me.”
Hugh took another bite of apple.
“They said you was from the hood. Where would that be on the map?”
Both men chuckled, but Curtis was the only one shaking his head.
“Shit, I don’t know where they heard that. I mean we weren’t wealthy, and I had to put up with my fair share of nonsense, but no. I was born in Culver City. Then we moved around a bit. Ended up in Utah for a while.”
“I’m Ward Eight. Grew up in Barry Farm. Now I’m in Northeast. DC born and raised. Plan on staying unless y’all force me out.”
There was a searing throb in the back of Curtis’s head, a grating shred of a wrench on a rusty valve and the drone of a straining Sunday choir. Hugh took another bite and continued talking. He was almost down to the core.
“I gotta run home in a few minutes. I appreciate you coming in. Before I go though, I do want to talk to you about how I expect to be treated by your daughters. I understand that they are going through a period of self-discovery, but what I will not tolerate—and I haven’t found a way to tell them this yet—is their attacks on my blackness. These insinuations about me. How I talk white or write white, as if blackness were a behavior. How do I have to act for your children to see me as black?”
Curtis tensed and squinted. “Are you asking me?”
“In a way I am.” He tossed the apple at the wall, letting it ricochet into a small waste bin in the corner. “I mean, I don’t know how you came up. I don’t know who taught them about black life, black existence in this country. In this city. It could be that they know something and are choosing to lash out with this asinine minstrelsy, but I’m inclined to believe they don’t know a whole lot. I bet they probably didn’t know they were black until a few years ago. I bet you didn’t have the heart to tell them. That’s a hell of a choice. To deny them their identity. One that you’ve always had the privilege of having.”
“Stay in your fucking lane.”
Curtis was up, his chair overturned behind him, looking down on Hugh. He was shaking.
“Is that it?”
Hugh didn’t blink.
“Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it, Utah.”
Out in the parking lot, shifting his Volt into reverse, he could feel the vines looking down on him.